If you were a teenage romantic in the 80s, you might have been the kind of little dreamer who bought Loving magazine. Filled with swooning love stories, it must have seemed an unlikely place to hear the latest record by an anarcho-punk outfit from Essex. And yet that’s exactly what happened when a flexi-disc with a song titled “Our Wedding” by an artist called Joy De Vivre – purported by Loving to capture the happiness of your big day for “true romantics” – was given away to readers. Famously, the mag was forced to issue an apology when it emerged this was actually a subversive piece of feminist agit-prop from an album called Penis Envy by a band called Crass. This lent new meaning to the lines: “All I am I give to you, you’ll honour me, I’ll obey you” and caused the News of the World to describe them as a “band of hate”.
As usual, the tabloids couldn’t have been more wrong. Crass were many things – angry, subversive and loud – but they were not a band of hate. They formed in 1977, a compelling mix of anarcho-punk, avant-garde art and – despite singer Steve Ignorant’s protestation that he hated hippies – vegetarian free-thinkers who worked and lived out of a commune called Dial House in Essex, writing their own literature and putting out their own records.
Jon Savage, author of punk chronicle England’s Dreaming, interviewed Crass in 1979 at Dial House. He told me last week: “A lot of bands pontificated about changing the world but Crass were the only band who really impressed me by actually walking the walk. Punk was very male at that point in time, and they had two women onstage, talking about gender issues. But they weren’t dogmatic, they wanted a conversation, not to shout you down.”
It may be the Pistols and the Clash who dominate the annals of punk, but any young band referencing them these days would likely be met with a massive yawn. Younger generations who’ve come to consider the gobbing fans and safety pins of punk a bit passé have, in Crass, at least one largely unmined source of anarchy that doesn’t seem played out.
The point at which their name came back into currency arrived with a Jeffrey Lewis record, 12 Crass Songs, three years ago. This harbinger of the US east coast “anti-folk” scene added wry new meaning to lines such as “I am a symbol of endless, hopeless, fruitless, aimless games” by delivering them with his acoustic guitar. Explaining why he covered their music, Lewis said: “I wouldn’t say that I necessarily agree with 100% of what Crass says, nor do I think that they would want me to, which is part of what’s great about them.”
While the likes of newer band Flats appear to have much in common with Crass musically, co-founder Penny Rimbaud has himself collaborated with new-wave punk band Japanther, who are influenced by Crass’s use of situationist techniques in their live performances: shadow puppets have featured at gigs, as well as synchronised swimmers. Rimbaud also appears on the new Charlatans album, Who We Touch.
“Penis Envy came out when I was about 12,” explains Charlatans singer Tim Burgess. “It changed everything – it meant so much more. I became a feminist and vegetarian overnight.” According to Burgess, the opportunity to have Rimbaud “inspire, aggravate and annoy” on the band’s new record was irresistible.
At some point, probably around the time Noel Gallagher visited 10 Downing Street, anti-authoritarianism seemed to stop looking cool in this country. The late 90s were a time of political optimism in the UK, of champagne supernovas and champagne socialism, and the vegetarian stew-eating way of life that Crass represented looked, if anything, embarrassing.
Times change. Crass split in 1984 – following a dismal gig in support of the striking miners – and the sort of internal politics that scar so many bands means that any hopes of reunion won’t be realised. But recently they reissued their 1978 debut The Feeding of the 5000, and among younger groups, Crass’s name is increasingly being dropped. As the country finds itself preparing to deal with the bloody mess left by George Osborne’s fallen axe, the ability to inspire, aggravate and annoy seems more relevant than ever.